When a defendant in a criminal case pleads guilty in Minnesota, the law provides for several options as to what happens with that guilty plea.  One possibility is that although the defendant has admitted guilt, the judge does not adjudicate that person guilty – a Stay of Adjudication.  The Stay of Adjudication will be in place for a certain length of time, during which time the defendant will likely need to complete some terms of probation (such as classes or programming, community service, not picking up any new charges), but if those terms are successfully completed, then at the end of the period of the Stay, the charges are dismissed.  See Minn. Stat. § 609.095(b) (2020).  This means that the defendant comes out of the case with no Minnesota conviction – a huge benefit.

Unfortunately, a stay of adjudication is one example in which the state law of Minnesota and federal law conflict.  As immigration law is federal, the consequences of a Stay of Adjudication for non-citizens in Minnesota is vastly different than for citizens.  While a Stay of Adjudication in Minnesota does not result in a state criminal conviction, it has virtually no benefit in the immigration context.  An admission of guilt with any consequence (i.e., the process of a Stay of Adjudication) is a conviction for federal purposes.  8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(48)(A).  So while a successful Stay of Adjudication keeps your Minnesota record clean, if you are a non-citizen, you will still have a conviction for Immigration purposes.

The Minnesota Supreme Court recently decided a case involving this conflict between state and federal law in Johnston v. State of Minnesota, A19-0672, 2021 WL 900933, decided March 10, 2021.  In 2017, the State had charged Mr. Gary Johnston, an Irish citizen and lawful permanent resident (green card holder) of the United States, with one count of malicious punishment of a child, and one count of domestic assault.  Mr. Johnston received some advice (albeit apparently minimal and misguided) from an immigration attorney regarding potential immigration consequences of pleading guilty to these two charges, after which he entered into a plea agreement with the State.  The State dismissed the malicious punishment charge and agreed to a stay of adjudication on the domestic assault charge for a period of one year, during which time Mr. Johnston would be on probation.  During Mr. Johnston’s plea hearing,  he was questioned by both the court and his defense attorney regarding his understanding of potential immigration consequences. The court accepted his guilty plea but it did not adjudicate him guilty.  The court stayed adjudication of guilt.

Mr. Johnston successfully completed probation and was discharged without any state conviction on his record however, within three days he received a notice from the immigration court that he had been placed into removal (deportation) proceedings.  Homeland Security considered the Stay of Adjudication outcome a conviction for immigration purposes.

Mr. Johnston filed a post-conviction petition in district court seeking to withdraw his guilty plea on the basis that he received ineffective assistance of counsel due to the immigration attorney’s bad advice to him.  However, the postconviction court found that Johnston’s charge had been dismissed without an adjudication of guilt and so the case was closed – in essence, there was no guilty plea for him to withdraw.  The postconviction district court concluded that he had not been convicted of a crime and so was not eligible for postconviction relief.  The case was appealed to the state’s highest court.

The Minnesota Supreme Court began its decision by analyzing the language of the postconviction statute, which states:  “[A] person convicted of a crime . . . may commence a proceeding to secure relief” by filing a petition for postconviction relief in district court.  Minn. Stat. § 590.01, subd. 1.  Minnesota law defines a conviction as “the following accepted and recorded by the court:  (1) a plea of guilty; or (2) a verdict of guilty by a jury or a finding of guilty by the court.”  Minn. Stat. § 609.02, subd. 5 (2020). 

Not surprisingly, the Supreme Court decided, pursuant to precedent, that a successful Stay of Adjudication does not meet Minnesota’s definition of conviction as the court never records a guilty plea.  Johnston at *7.   However, Johnston also argued that the postconviction statute’s phrase “a person convicted of a crime” includes a person who has a conviction as defined by federal immigration law.  Id. at *8.  Otherwise, a person who successfully completes a Stay of Adjudication but then unexpectedly faces immigration consequences, even deportation, cannot pursue postconviction based on these immigration consequences – certainly an unintended result, argued Johnston, and a constitutional violation.

However, the Supreme Court decided that the plain meaning of the postconviction statute included no provision for someone with a conviction for purposes of federal immigration law, it only referred to state law and state convictions.  Id. at *9.  And while the Supreme Court noted that Johnston “may” have received ineffective assistance of counsel under Padilla v. Kentucky (a United States case requiring that defense counsel advise a client when it is truly clear that a guilty plea will result in deportation proceedings, see 599 U.S. 356, 369, 374 (2010)), it also claimed itself bound by the Legislature’s limited authorization (through statute) of postconviction relief only to “persons with a conviction.”  Id. *9-10. 

A strongly worded dissent from Justice Thissen disagreed with the majority opinion, finding that “limiting relief under [the postconviction statute] to persons subject to a judicial act considered a conviction under Minnesota law further means that a person in Johnston’s shoes is left in a Kafkaesque position:  he is subject to a serious immigration consequence of removal from the country based on a judicial act that followed a constitutionally flawed proceeding and he has no way to challenge that judicial act.”  Id. at *D-4.  The dissent argues against the court’s decision which “presumes that the Legislature intended that there is no remedy for a person facing serious consequences flowing from a judicial act tainted by constitutional error.”  Id. at *D-5-6.  Such an outcome would be contrary to the legislature’s purpose in enacting a postconviction statute such as 590.01:  “to allow persons in criminal cases to raise challenges to judicial acts tainted by constitutional error that carry serious consequences.”  Id. at *D-6.  The dissent would have allowed Johnston “a procedural avenue to challenge a judicial act that followed a constitutionally flawed process” since Johnston’s constitutional rights were plainly violated.  Id. at *D-6-7.

This case presents a cautionary tale, showing that knowledgeable legal counsel is *paramount* for non-citizens who face criminal charges.  This non-citizen was placed in deportation proceedings despite his finding both criminal and immigration counsel and receiving advice from them regarding the consequences to his guilty plea and Stay of Adjudication.    

The stakes for non-citizens charged with crimes in Minnesota are extremely high.  You may have choices, but you need an attorney who is versed in those choices and who knows how to negotiate with prosecutors to find a case resolution that will avoid the most serious immigration consequences, and who will protect your rights.  Call Eva Wailes at Wilson Law Group for a free consultation or click here to schedule.